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Cloaks and Daggers

By Nicholas D. Kristof
New York Times Op-Ed Columnist


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On Day 78 of the Search for Iraqi W.M.D., yesterday, once again nothing turned up.

Spooks are spitting mad at the way their work was manipulated to exaggerate the Iraqi threat, and they are thus surprisingly loquacious (delighting those of us in journalism). They emphasize that even if weapons of mass destruction still turn up, there is a fundamental problem —not within the intelligence community itself, but with senior administration officials — particularly in the Pentagon.

"As an employee of the Defense Intelligence Agency, I know how this administration has lied to the public to get support for its attack on Iraq," one of my informants rages. Some others see a pattern not so much of lying as of self-delusion — and of subjecting the intelligence agencies to those delusions.

One has to take the outrage among the spooks with a few grains of salt because the intelligence folks have been on the losing end of a power struggle with the Pentagon. But that's the problem: the Pentagon has become the 800-pound gorilla of the Bush administration, playing a central role in foreign policy and intelligence as well as military matters.

"The basic problem here is that O.S.D. [Office of the Secretary of Defense] has become too powerful," noted Patrick Lang, a former senior official in the Defense Intelligence Agency.

One step came in the Clinton administration, when the defense secretary gained greater control over the handling of images from spy satellites. Mr. Rumsfeld then started up his own intelligence shop in the Pentagon. The central philosophy of intelligence — that it should be sheltered from policy considerations to keep it honest — was deeply bruised.

A commission led by Brent Scowcroft suggested two years ago that intelligence functions be consolidated under the director of central intelligence. It was an excellent idea — killed by, among others, Mr. Rumsfeld.

My own limited encounters with spies reinforce the idea that intelligence needs to be digested by professionals rather than cherry-picked by ideologues. I remember one spy who would call me up periodically for lunch when I lived in China. He would pass on amazing inside tidbits about China's top leaders — and then ask for copies of classified Chinese documents I had obtained.

I kept putting him off because I wasn't going to share my documents — but I did want his scoops. Unfortunately, I could never confirm them, so they were unusable. Finally, it dawned on me that he was simply fabricating juicy tidbits so he would have something to trade.

That's the way the intelligence game sometimes operates: the information is voluminous, confusing and contradictory, and prone to abuse, and it needs to be protected from policy makers rather than massaged to make them feel good.

"The president is a very powerful guy," said Ray Close, who spent 26 years in the C.I.A. "When you sense what he wants, it's very difficult not to go out and find it."

As best I can reconstruct events, Mr. Rumsfeld genuinely felt that the C.I.A. and D.I.A. were doing a horrendous job on Iraq — after all, he was hearing much more alarming information from those close to Ahmad Chalabi. So the Pentagon set up its own intelligence unit, and it sifted through everyone else's information and goaded other agencies to come up with more alarmist conclusions.

"He's an ideologist," one man in the spy world said of Mr. Rumsfeld. "He doesn't start with the facts, even though he's quite brainy. He has a bottom line, and then he gathers facts to support the bottom line."

That is not, of course, a capital offense. Pentagon leaders should feel free to disagree strenuously with foolish judgments by the C.I.A. But for the process to work, top C.I.A. officials need to fight back. Instead, George Tenet rolled over.

"Tenet sided with the D.O.D. crowd and cut the legs out from under his own analysts," said Larry Johnson, a retired C.I.A. analyst.

Does this mean that Mr. Tenet should be fired? I don't think so. Despite his failure to stand up for his people, he should not be made a scapegoat for problems that arose primarily from the Pentagon's zealotry — and ousting him would leave O.S.D. more powerful than ever.

"There was a collective failure here," one senior person in the intelligence world said. "At the end of the day, it should not be George left out to dry."


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